Search This Blog

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

What You See in the Dark by Manuel Munoz

What You See in the Dark is one of the ARCs from Algonquin books. 

In the quiet town of Bakersfield, CA, a young woman works in a shoe store and a handsome young man tends bar.  She is Latino; he is the handsomest, most desirable man in town.  

In 1959, this romance is closely watched by the entire town.  The narrator (who isn't identified immediately) is one of the individuals watching the courting couple, which gives a strangely sinister feeling to the narrative.

"A very plain girl, not too tall, with slender hips, and hair as dark as her mother's."    The narrator goes on to say that the girl walked to work each day and walked home alone after work.  "And that's how it should have stayed, a plain girl like that all alone."  

Soon " that girl" as the narrator often refers to Teresa--is riding with Dan Watson.  The narrator seems to know a lot of detail about the girl and the romance.  But who is the narrator?

The sense of menace is omnipresent, although the details are quite mundane.  In one scene, the narrator is at the drive-in, describing what is going on in the dark, not specifically with Dan and Teresa, but with all of the couples.  At this point, you realize the narrator is a girl and that she is also at the drive-in with her boyfriend.  

Chapter Two is from the perspective of the Actress (who becomes "this girl"   and is also never named) who is on her way to Bakersfield to meet with the Famous Director about the location of a motel.  She goes over and over the script, wondering about her part and some of the requirements.  She knows how important the role is, not because it is a large role, she will only be in the first third of the film, and then " she was going to disappear. Violently."    The Director, however, "was in the midst of doing something extraordinary and uncanny with some actresses, finessing their star wattage and burnishing it into a singular, almost iconic image." 

The story shifts to Arlene Watson, Dan's mother, who waits tables in the local diner and runs a motel.  She is bitter because her husband left her for another woman.  The Actress has entered the diner and tries to deflect interest by denying that she is an actress or famous.  When Arlene's hotel is under consideration, she refuses to allow its use as a film location because the Actress lied about who she was in the diner.

The making of the film and the romance of Teresa and Dan  take place simultaneously.  Until the night of the local premiere, when the romance ends in violence and death...

The perspective shifts, the chronology shifts.  There is menace, loneliness and longing, a murder, and the set of a very famous movie by a director who hugely influenced film.  Even if you haven't read any of the hype of the novel, the name of the movie springs to mind long before the shower scene is described. 

What You See in the Dark has the black-and-white film noir sense throughout. The unusual approach to the story worked for me, as did the author's prose.  The initial suspense was difficult, however, and I found myself putting the book down and coming back later.  Fortunately, the author didn't attempt to carry that tension throughout--although the technique was quite successfully Hitchcockian, it was also a bit stressful. 

Munoz is a new author for me, but a talented one who has managed to blend several threads and weave an unusual novel.

Fiction.  Contemporary Fiction.  2011.  272 pages.


  1. This sounds quite interesting although I think I know what you mean about the suspense being stressful. I do not like that either. Still the book sounds unusual.

  2. I have a copy of this book thanks to Algonquin Books too and it definitely sounds like an interesting read. Not in the mood for noir right now but I would like to check it out. Really enjoyed reading your thoughts on this one!

  3. Caroline - The beginning was really suspenseful, but that portion didn't last too long. There was never anything graphic. Munoz is a skilled writer; his use of second person narration, multiple perspectives, symbolic imagery worked smoothly. Not a happy story, but a well-told one.

    Iliana - I'll be interested in hearing what you think. I'm still thinking about it.